On these pages, you can explore five decades of creativity, protest, and collaboration:
In The Beginning, The Bookshop, Events and Festivals, Theatre, Visual Arts, Film and Video, Writing and Publishing
“Forty years ago there were no bookshops in Tower Hamlets. When one of the largest high-street bookstores was asked why, their reply was that people in the East End didn’t read! Not so.” Denise Jones, Owner of Brick Lane Bookshop (an extract from Denise’s Introduction in the 2020 Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Prize Longlist.)
In the Beginning
Brick Lane Bookshop was originally part of The Tower Hamlets Arts Project (THAP), which was formed in the 1970s out of a protest.
In 1974, Thames Television launched the ‘Eyesights’ scheme. With money channelled through the Great London Arts Association, the idea was that professional artists would be commissioned to create giant posters for display in the borough – with over half the amount being earmarked for the hire of hoardings alone.
The ‘Eyesights’ scheme was inevitably renamed ‘Eyesore’ by local people already involved in arts and community activities who thought that the money could be put to much better use. A crowded public meeting in February 1975 called for an alternative, bolder plan, bringing together existing and fledgling arts activities under a coordinating body to be called the Tower Hamlets Arts Project (THAP).
Rather than it being about artists coming into the area, it should be about those already here! And after some initial eye-rolling, Thames Television eventually saw the sense of the argument. The Borough Council assisted by appointing an Arts Officer, Phil Shepherd, to support the new scheme. THAP was launched at the start of 1976 and celebrated its achievements a year later with a month-long ‘Big Show’ at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Critics were bemused at finding this international venue, which had presented the works of Picasso and Frida Kahlo, awash with East End poets, Stepney filmmakers, amateur rock bands, truanting schoolkids, improvised theatre shows and messy experiments in silkscreen printing. A bookstall run by the local Basement Writers group – selling a range of home-made material produced on inky Roneo printers and school photocopiers – also ran for the whole month. Its success strengthened a long term ambition of creating a permanent bookshop in the borough.
In the early 1970s, there was not a single bookshop in the whole of Tower Hamlets, a borough that had spawned such writers as Isaac Rosenberg, Bernard Kops, Mary Wollstonecraft and Arnold Wesker.
Bookshop co-founder Denise Jones speaks of a determination: ‘There was a group of local people who were not prepared to put up with this and we realised that we would have to start one – but start small. Stepney Books began as a Saturday stall in Whitechapel Market where we sold Penguin’s disgarded proof copies alongside THAP and Centerprise local history publications.’ This do-it-yourself initiative had inspired the bookstall at the ‘Big Show’ in 1976, and its success strengthened the project’s resolve to create a permanent outlet.
This was realised in April 1977 when THAP bookshop opened – in a crumbling, mice-ridden building in Watney Market. From here, work continued to flourish.
(R) Leaflet drawn by Alan Gilbey, 1979. Above the bookshop were THAP offices and creative workshop spaces.
For many locals, this was their first experience of entering a bookshop. Some assumed it to be a library, and things didn’t always run smoothly; kids nicked stock, there were break-ins, drunks came in to seek solace. Every day brought a new funding crisis. From the very start, the shop stocked a range of locally produced books, prints and community newspapers. And with an ordering service (which would sometimes lose the bookshop money), people could get almost any book they wanted, from almost anywhere in the world. By the late 1970s, it also became the place to buy punk badges and records from those suppliers deemed to be sympathetic to the DIY ethos.
In 1980, the shop relocated to a bigger building in Whitechapel near the London Hospital, its expansion being led by Denise Jones and Richard Sylvester. A new name soon followed – Eastside. As with the original site, the upstairs rooms hosted meetings by local writers groups and a range of community organisations.
In the larger premises, guest readings and book launches increased, poets Mike Rosen and Adrian Mitchell, and writers Andrea Levy, Rachel Lichtenstein, Hanif Kureshi and Jeanette Winterson among them.
This tradition has continued in Brick Lane Bookshop where writers Sarah Waters, James Sallis, Beryl Bainbridge, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Worth, Sarah Wise, Iain Sinclair and many others have read from their works at packed events.
In Whitechapel the project also gained a reputation as efficient and imaginative school suppliers, while managed by Nicola Samson. The shop became a specialist in dual language books, including Arabic, Japanese, Gujerati, Bengali, Somali, Urdu and Vietnamese.
Events and Festivals
The transport system in Tower Hamlets was lacking in the 70s and 80s, making it difficult for people to travel across the borough to the bookshop. Not content with that, we employed an outreach worker who ran book stalls at playgroups, school events, conferences and open-air festivals, bringing more books to more people and continuing our community-centric philosophy.
THAP initiated and took part in dozens of community events, supplying and hosting bookstalls, writing workshops and performances, as well as being among the first local groups to organise multi-cultural literary events and conferences. We also participated in the E1 Festival, a huge annual celebration of East End Life that was well established even before THAP’s existence. Initiated by the Junior Football League, it offered a long weekend of music, theatre, dance, play activities for kids, a beer tent and the famous ‘Drunken Pram Race’. You can watch Jenny Barraclough’s film of the event here.
THAP also organised its own more localised event, East End Yesterdays, at the huge premises of the defunct ‘Wickhams’ department store in Mile End. Hundreds of people, some who had moved away from the area decades ago, returned to look at photographs, watch films, study historical documents and listen to lectures about the East End of old.
A play, ‘The Battle of Cable Street’, received a reading with the author Simon Blumenfeld in attendance, and the legendary actress Anna Tzelnicker spoke of her life in Yiddish theatre.
Building on this during the 1980s, THAP, with the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, was a mainstay of the annual Exploring Living Memory Festival. Local history work and publications came to the fore in this exhibition, bringing together dozens of reminiscence groups. The first event took place in the South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall and was supported by the Greater London Council.
Decades before the current interest in immersive events, THAP was also staging themed programmes, such as the revival and reappraisal of the 1962 East London based film ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’, directed by legendary Theatre Workshop founder, Joan Littlewood. The screening, at a cinema in Mile End, was attended by the film’s writer Stephen Lewis and its star, Barbara Windsor. A theatrical approach was also built into book launches, author signings and writing competitions: collaborative events took us to ‘The Community Translation Project: Tongues in the City’ conference at the Kobi Nazrul Centre in Spitalfields, featuring London-based poets Stephen Watts and Leah Thorn, and further afield to the Slaughterhouse Gallery in Smithfield Market for the Granta launch of Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory.
This theatrical strand had been an important to us for a while. THUD Theatre was formed in late 1977 by the incorporation of three ex-members of Soapbox Theatre – Steve Murray, Anstice Fisher and Paul Waller – into the THAP framework, with the aim of providing Tower Hamlets with a resident theatre group. They devised various shows ranging from pre-school entertainment, such as ‘Eggs’, (‘Eggbert & Eggnog’s search for the biggest egg in the world’), to others such as ‘Get Out Of It’, for residents of elderly care homes. The more political ‘Creeping Sheep’, a musical show, toured in street markets, pubs and outdoor festivals. THUD were to eventually regain their independence, while maintaining close ties with the project.
Controlled Attack was another group. Formed by Alan Gilbey and Leslie Mildiner, they developed a popular hard-hitting and challenging style that combined poetry, satire and commentary on current issues. Working with the Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers, they toured major northern cities and liaised with ‘acoustic punk’ Patrik Fitzgerald, whose first book of poetry was published by THAP. The group grew out of THAP activity, becoming an entity in their own right, such was the organic (and often frenetic) nature of change at the project. The Island Arts Team, for instance, working on the Isle of Dogs, developed a strong programme of events of their own. Controlled Attack’s Alan Gilbey also worked with other theatre groups in the borough. In 1986, ‘A View of the River’, was performed at a deserted warehouse on the Isle of Dogs. An epic production, devised by locals and guided by Alan, it used an ambitious mix of panto, pageant and performance to explore the area’s dockland past and its corporate future. It was later revived by the WOOF Theatre Company at the new Half Moon Theatre in Mile End as part of The East End Festival.
There followed a myriad of productions under a bewildering array of company titles, and THAP’s involvement was the link that tied them together. Under the ‘Dramatic Events’ banner, in conjunction with the Island Arts Centre, THAP worker Anne Edyvean oversaw ‘Soap Opera’, made up of women from a mother and toddler group. The Isle of Dogs residents who had taken part in ‘A View of the River’ demanded a show of their own, based around their personal lives; on ‘Bombshell’, Anne worked with clients of St Clements Drug Dependency Unit. During the 1980s, the project also promoted ‘alternative cabaret’ events in Bethnal Green. They featured performers such as John Hegley and Harry Enfield, who went on to achieve national fame, but true to its original intentions, rather than merely providing a stand-up comedian’s stepping stone, the project also promoted local poets, writers and musicians at the shows.
Although the current Brick Lane Bookshop does not run a theatre programme, ventures that had their roots in THAP and Eastside continue to flourish. One example is Alan Gilbey’s East End Backpassages, a project ‘exploring the side streets of social history’; these guided walks and ‘speed history’ events continue to use non-professional performers to tell the stories of East London.
Another enduring creative strand of THAP has been our involvements in the visual arts. The idea of a mural to commemorate the victory of local people at the Battle of Cable Street was proposed in 1976 by the fledgling THAP, before it had paid staff, before it even had a bookshop, back when it was just a sprawl of people with an endless stack of ideas, many of which fell into the categories of the impossible or near impossible. The idea of the mural was in the latter category.
The huge mural eventually found its way onto the outside wall of St. George’s Town Hall under the auspices of the Public Arts Workshop in association with the Cable Street Mural Project. The original artist, Dave Binnington, worked out of the Basement Project in the depths of the Town Hall itself.
Sadly, the mural was vandalised (see image) in 1982 by the British National Party. Shortly after this, David Binnington left the project. After that, the giant artwork was redesigned and completed by Paul Butler, Desmond Rochfort and Ray Walker.
Ray was also hired by THAP to design and paint an even bigger and more ambitious mural off Brick Lane. The ‘Chicksand Mural’ was completed in 1980 with a huge street party to celebrate its opening.
Unfortunately, the Chicksand Mural no longer exists as it was chipped off the warehouse wall during re-decoration of the building, and Liverpool-born Ray died at the age of thirty-nine just as his reputation was growing. His life and work were commemorated in a book published by the GLC and an exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall.
In the 1970s, ‘East End Impressions’ was set up by THAP in conjunction with Centerprise in Hackney to encourage painting and the production and sale of affordable prints in an attempt to emulate the success of their community publishing work. The three full colour works produced were by Taploe Johnson, Ron Barnes and Dan Jones, whose picture depicts the bustling E1 Festival when it was held at Shadwell Basin. Local artist Dan has often been called on to supply last minute images for event programmes and poetry collections. Illustrations from his journeys to Bangladesh adorn the pages of Across Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers. As well as work on youth club murals or temporary site-specific artworks, the project’s involvement in the visual arts can also be found on its book covers, event flyers, posters and postcards.
Film and Video
Naturally incorporating activities in theatre, festivals, and visual arts was THAP’s connection to film and video production. ‘Despite TV’ was a video co-op that grew out of Mark Saunders’ work at THAP. In the 1980s they reported on local events and current issues, offering training and access to equipment for a range of local people. Productions included a series of ‘magazine’ tapes plus longer, single issue programmes. ‘Despite the Sun‘ was a fifty minute exploration of the ‘Wapping Dispute’ brought about by Rupert Murdoch’s treatment of sacked print workers; ‘Despite the City’ investigated ‘the square mile’s most recent spate of colonisation […] into the East End.’ Like THUD Theatre, DTV eventually became independent, while still maintaining strong links with the project. Still sticking by community-minded principles, the videos were made as accessible to the public as possible through showings at community centres, unemployed drop-ins, libraries, schools and elsewhere.
Other THAP productions included ‘Yard Scene’, an improvised drama with Saxon Youth Club about a family affected by unplanned pregnancy and alcoholism, and ‘Land of Arguments’, about a group of girls on the Gough Grove Estate. Drama work there collided with video production in the making of several films, such as ‘Interference’, which imagined the plight of a group of young people stranded in the countryside at the time of a nuclear explosion.
Breaking Through was an ambitious hour-long drama-documentary directed by Jeff Perks for Riverfront Pictures and shown in a primetime slot on Channel Four in 1984. Scripted by two THAP workers, it featured the work of a number of East London poets and writers, including Gladys McGee, Dave Barnes and Roberto Bangura – who later went on to direct his own films and work in television. The film also featured a Bengali music group, Dishari, and the WOOF Theatre Company, whose fictional film crew threaded the writing extracts together.
A THAP publication of 1985, ‘East End On Screen’, catalogued the above THAP and DTV productions as well as more mainstream films such as ‘To Sir, With Love’ and ‘Sparrows Can’t Sing’, filmed in Stepney and the Isle of Dogs and revived by the project for a special showing to mark the launch of the book.
Writing and Publishing
Threaded throughout THAP’s activities through the years – and best encapsulating its ethos – has been endeavours in writing and publishing.
Once THAP had obtained premises in Watney Street, they followed Stepney Books in combining bookselling and publishing. The large section in the shop on writing by East Enders and about East London proved to be the most popular. ‘Black Saturday’, edited by Les Miller and Howard Bloch, brought together local people’s memories of the Blitz; anthologies of local writers and poets’ work, such as ‘Old Age Ain’t No Place For Sissies’ by pensioner Gladys McGee, were a major feature.
THAP also published biographies and anthologies. For ‘Ben’s Bunker Book’, author Ben Hayden built a nuclear bunker according to government guidelines on how to protect yourself in the event of a nuclear strike. He spent two weeks in this hole in Limehouse to experience the living conditions, laying bare the lunacy behind the government’s advice.
‘Across Seven Seas and Thirteen Rivers: life stories of pioneer Sylhetti settlers in Britain’ by Caroline Adams was published in 1987 and charted the wave of Bangladeshi migration to Britain after the Second World War, which would eventually transform the cultural make-up of East London. As on previous occasions, it was left to a community publisher to shed light on a largely unexplored history. It was designed and published by Eastside publishers John Wallet and Denise Jones.
In 1991, the project launched ‘What’s the Word?’ – a free newsletter on writing activities in the borough, and the next year organised the Writing in the East awards scheme for young poets, judged by writer Benjamin Zephaniah. A publication arose from this, as did the work of a group people with learning difficulties, convened by project worker Sean Taylor, in ‘Cheese and Chips are Related to the Moon’. Later, in 1995, a stint in Newham brought together young people between 14-16 and professional writers, including project worker Jill Dawson, to produce the hard-hitting anthology, ‘Telling Tales’.
The location of Stepney Books in Whitechapel Market was fortuitous, leading directly to their entry into the publishing world. Celia Stubbs was on the rota of volunteer staff and one day got talking to a fellow market trader. She became entranced with stallholder Jim Wolveridge’s wry recollections of his East End upbringing in the 1920s and 30s and thought they would make a fantastic book. Jim’s book, ‘Ain’t It Grand’ (or ‘This Was Stepney’) in 1976, was the first of a series of publications documenting working class lives and experiences. Titles include ‘Looking Back – A Docker’s Life’ by Joe Bloomberg, ‘Memories of Old Poplar’ by John Blake and ‘Edith and Stepney’ by Bertha Sokoloff. Some were published in conjunction with other groups. ‘Victoria Park’ by Charles Poulson was a joint project with Centerprise in Hackney.
Jenny Smith, Denise Jones and Jo Chesterton worked on many of the Stepney Books publications. ‘We were making it up as we went along,’ says Denise. ‘It was before computers. We had to learn lay-out, paste-up and design skills. How to liaise with printers and things like that.’
Jenny became the chief rep, with the stock filling up her back room. Outlets included the local Half Moon Theatre and the Labour History Museum. And they uncovered a previously unmined seam of writing. ‘You’d be surprised how many people had got manuscripts tucked away in the drawer,’ says Jenny. ‘They came through the letterbox, I should think, at the rate of about one a month’.
The Bookshop in Watney Street, in Whitechapel, and now Brick Lane, has always been a home to writers groups, encouraging new writers and new writing. A 1970’s THAP leaflet stated: ‘Writing doesn’t have to be a grand, solitary or self-indulgent experience, the project’s focus being on sharing and discussing each other’s work.’ In the late 1970’s, THAP, Centerprise, Stepney Books and other community publishers and writers workshops from around the UK gave a platform to working class writers who weren’t often represented by the literary mainstream, which led to the formation of The Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers (FWWCP). This was a non-profit making umbrella organisation for writers’ groups and community publishers, who wished to share their skills and work with their communities.
Working with the publishing arm of the project, a series of books and pamphlets were produced, being sold in the shop and whatever outlet would take them. Garment worker and writer Sally Flood was particularly adept at selling her books, taking them to the readings and conferences which the groups would regularly take part in.
These events took place in rooms above pubs, youth clubs, community centres and local festivals. Although it was not the intention to produce stars, several people who took part went on to work as writers and performers including East London playwright Tony Marchant.
Mad minibus journeys to various parts of the country brought the FWWCP members together for annuals event to share and discuss their work. Groups of representative writers visited America and Northern and Southern Ireland, the latter including project worker Roger Mills and Liverpool’s Jimmy McGovern – who later achieved great success writing for film and television.
THAP changed its name to Eastside Arts and Books in 1994. For several years in the mid-1990s, the Eastside Stories award scheme for new novelists gave the winner a measure of financial support and an introduction to a literary agent. Several writing careers, such as Ben Richards – author of ‘Throwing the House Out of the Window’, and episodes of BBC’s ‘Spooks’ – were launched in this way.
This enthusiasm for harnessing the creative energy of our area endures to this day; since 2019, The Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Competition seeks out bright new voices and publishes an anthology of longlisted entries annually. You can find out more about it here.